Dale’s the goody, Custer the baddy
A mid-50s pro-Indian picture starring a pre-Wells Fargo Dale Robertson, Sitting Bull gives us a semi-revisionist portrayal of Little Bighorn and it has certain merits, not least its Mexican locations shot in CinemaScope color.
Robertson as an army major, demoted to captain, is not altogether convincing for the 1870s in his Gene Vincent hair, and also I fear rather wooden. He is complemented by J Carrol Naish, in the title role. At 60, Naish was a tad anno domini to play the Bull of that moment (the Hunkpapa Lakota leader was actually in his early or mid 40s at the time of the events shown) but in all honesty that is the least of the liberties taken with history. Some of the others make the picture laughable.
The “technical advisor” to the movie and actor playing Crazy Horse is the ‘Indian’ Iron Eyes Cody, a Louisiana-born son of first generation Italian immigrants. I’m afraid he didn’t advise technically very well.
The best bio of Bull (by far) is that by Robert M Utley, himself one of the very best writers on Custer, The Lance and the Shield: The Life and Times of Sitting Bull (Henry Holt & Company, 1993). It is an excellent title: the lance was Bull’s favorite weapon and it symbolizes the first part of his life as he did all in his power to attack the invading whites and drive them from his tribe’s lands, while the shield presented to him by his father, which he treasured, represented the protective, elder-statesman Sitting Bull of later years who (like Crazy Horse) adopted a more defensive policy of not seeking war but still resisting fiercely unwarranted assaults.
Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake, also nicknamed Slon-he or “Slow”, more commonly known to us as Sitting Bull, a Hunkpapa spiritual chief and tribal leader of his Sioux people, lived from c. 1831 to his murder in 1890. He was very active in gathering Indians of various groups and he reported a vision he had had of the white soldiers suffering a major defeat but it seems that he did not take an active part himself in the battle with Custer. In May 1877 Sitting Bull led his people into Canada, staying there four years and refusing a pardon and the chance to return. However, hunger and desperation eventually forced him, with 186 of his family and followers, to return to the United States and surrender on July 19, 1881. In 1885 he participated in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, forming a friendship with Annie Oakley. In December 1890 he was murdered by Indian police sent by Indian agent James McLaughlin to arrest him at his farm.
Hollywood has often shown Sitting Bull and, unusually, often used Native American actors to portray him. William Eagle Shirt was Sitting Bull in Francis Ford’s Custer’s Last Fight (1912) and in 1922 Chief Lightheart played him in In the Days of Buffalo Bill. Chief Yowlachie was the Bull in Sitting Bull at the Spirit Lake Massacre (1927) and Chief Thunderbird did the honors in the 1935 talkie Annie Oakley (the one with Barbara Stanwyck as Annie). In more recent times, well-known American Indian actors such as August Schellenberg, Graham Greene and Eric Schweig have all played Sitting Bull in various movies and TV shows.But it was New Yorker Naish in the 1954 picture Sitting Bull. He’d also played the Bull in the 1950 Annie Get Your Gun (the Betty Hutton one), so he was getting a bit typecast. According to an article in a November 1953 article Newsweek Boris Karloff was originally intended to play Sitting Bull. Probably fortunate that didn’t happen. It is said that Hanna and Barbera used Naish’s portrayal of Bull as a model for Crazy Coyote in Huckleberry Hound. Don’t know if that’s praise or not.
At a peace council (participated in also by Sitting Bull’s women – very likely, I don’t think) wise statesmen Dale and Bull are all set to come to an agreement and avoid war, and Dale has persuaded President Grant to come out to Montana and have a parley, when arrogant fool Custer disobeys orders and attacks. The Indians, with blankets over Western saddles, surround him. Custer’s last stand seems to have been made in a hollow, and he is, once again (most movies did this) the last man killed as he waves his saber. Sitting Bull orders the Indians not to scalp or otherwise mutilate the dead. So you see how authentic it all is.
This Custer is played by Douglas Kennedy. He’ll be remembered by many Westernistas as Steve Donovan, Western Marshal on NBC’s show 1955 – 56, but he also did a goodly number of big-screen oaters, including several with Randolph Scott and with George Montgomery. He’s not bad, I guess., although The New York Times critique talked of “Douglas Kennedy acting Colonel Custer as though he were a high-school Horatio at the Bridge”.
Kennedy’s Custer is certainly not a sympathetic one and we are in anti-Custer mode. The script was by Jack DeWitt, co-writing with director Sidney Salkow. DeWitt wrote or co-wrote fifteen feature Westerns (depending on your definition of Western), mostly a bit on the B side, and is probably best known for his adaptation (pretty poor adaptation, I think) of Dorothy Johnson’s story A Man Called Horse (1970) and its sequels.
As for Salkow, he helmed a number of slightly underwhelming George Montgomery oaters. He would be back on the Custer trail in 1965 when he directed and co-wrote The Great Sioux Massacre, which we shall review another day.
The day after Little Bighorn, Dale leads the Sioux north to Canada for safety, and is then arrested for treason for this act. Sitting Bull comes back (he gets back from Canada in 48 hours) to save him from the firing squad. It really is all preposterous twaddle.
Well, as I have often said in this blog, we don’t criticize Hollywood Westerns for not being historically accurate. They are entertainment, after all, and not documentaries.
There’s love interest, of course, in the curvaceous shape of the general’s daughter Kathy (Mary Murphy) but she is very unpleasant and dumb too. She won’t even listen to Dale’s side of the case and throws him over for a newspaper correspondent, Wentworth (William Hopper, son of Hedda). She has hardly got her claws into this paper boy before she is asking him, as he prepares to cover the big Custer story, if “News is more important than our marriage?” Well, yes. Duh. Wentworth, who is killed alongside Custer, is presumably a Mark Kellogg figure. Marcus Kellogg (1831 – 1876) was a reporter for the Bismarck Tribune and said to be (though who knows?) one of the first killed at Little Bighorn. Lucky escape for Wentworth, that, being killed, and bad luck for Dale, stuck at the end of the movie with such a ghastly woman.
One good thing: there’s a black man, Sam (Joel Fluellen) who has been living with the Sioux, a bit like Lavender in the Thomas Berger novel Little Big Man, who allies with Dale. African-Americans, often freed or escaped slaves, did sometimes join Indian tribes. They were known as black white men.
The fort is of course one of those toy ones Hollywood loved, a wooden stockade made of pointy logs, not buildings in an open space around a parade ground, such as at Fort Laramie or Fort Apache (though at Fort Abraham Lincoln there was a stockaded part, the old infantry fort). Here in the wooden fort President Grant (John Hamilton) meets Sitting Bull and they shake hands on a peace deal. I’m sure that happened.
The evil Indian agent at the reservation (Thomas Browne Henry) is quite well done. Many of these agents, especially in Grant’s administration, were disgracefully corrupt, starving the Indians in their charge and holding back government rations for resale for personal gain.
Very much a second-rank Custer Western, Sitting Bull does have a sort of message about arrogant and overweening US military. Produced by WR Frank (his only Western) and shot by Charles van Enger, a Johnny Mack Brown B-Western cameraman, it is a 105-minute CinemaScope picture in nice Eastmancolor, so it’s no cheapie. But I’m afraid it really isn’t very good. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times said, “Actually, what it boils down to, for all the flashing of war paint and horses’ hoofs, is a bad imitation of Fort Apache that makes less excitement and sense.” Dennis Schwartz has called it “earnest but sluggish” and that’s about right.